Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Yes, I'm alive. Despite any rumors to the contrary. As you can probably tell from the distinct lack of any Blog posts, Tweets or - more importantly - new book release dates in a long while, 2009 hasn't been the easiest of years for me. I guess it's the same dilemma all writers face at some time or another during their career. Real life has this horrible tendency to get in the way of creating fiction. At least it has for me this year. Can't say I'm sorry to see the back of 2009, frankly.
As I suppose we all do at this time of year, I'm looking both backwards and forwards. Backwards at where it all went wrong, and forwards with the hope that things can only get better. We all know the adage 'Writers' write', and I believe that, honest I do (which in many ways has made things tougher). I've never been a sit down and hit 'x' amount of words a day kinda gal for 'y' hours, but when I wrote, I could do it for hours on end when the words were flowing (with a distinct lack of a need for sleep). It all balanced out in the end, I figured. And it wasn't like I wasn't producing the finished article. Then I hit that wall all writers dread hitting, writing anything felt like wading through week old porridge wearing weighted boots. The downward spiral had begun. Naturally, it was then that real life started to spiral right along with it. So why am I telling you such a cheery tale at this festive time of year? Well... I'm kinda hoping it might help anyone who has experienced the same thing, enlighten those who may think everything is a bed of roses once you get 'The Call' and have more than a dozen books under your belt. And - most of all - if anyone out there is where I've been for the last year, hopefully you'll know you're not alone. Yes, my friends, writers are human too...
Here's how I see it: We're writing romance - and while that may mean plenty of ups and downs along the road to Happily Ever After, there's a pervading sense of optimism to the stories we tell. Thing is, it's tough to maintain that optimism - even in fiction - if the world around you is slowly unravelling. We've all been there. Whether it's sick relatives or money worries or relationship problems or animals that require care or crying children or the basic demands of day-to-day life in the modern world, there's always something sent to try us; testing our resiliance and resolve. If every day is spent what I term 'fire-fighting', then it can be difficult to close the door and find the energy to summon any memory of that thing called optimism on the blank screen in front of you. Add to that problem the fact the publishing wheel continues to turn in your absence and getting back into the game can look like a very large mountain to climb.
Writers write. But what do we do when we can't?
I'm a great believer in taking care of yourself first. An easy thing for a single girl with no children to say, you may think. But even those of us without an immediate family still have family and friends who rely on us. As with all families, there will be times when you have to give more than you can 'take' from them. It's not always a highway with an even flow of traffic in both lanes. I have to look after me first, so I can give when it's needed and as much as is needed. But just as there are times in a writers life when we have to refill the creative 'well', there are times when the emotional well can run dry and something has to give. In 2009, while already suffering an attack of writers angst, I was needed away from the keyboard. Trouble is, the longer you stay away and the more is drawn from your emotional well, the more difficult I've found it is to return to the keyboard and bleed on the page for my fictional characters.
I know there are writers out there who may read this and think it all sounds like a huge excuse - justification for procrastination and the kind of laziness that hasn't produced words on the page on a regular basis the way professional writers must in order to hold their head above water. But just as there are writers who can bury themselves in their work when things in real life collapse around them, there are some who need to take a step back, fight the fires, refill the wells, and come back to face that mountain with its well trodden paths of doubt, self-reproach, angst and fear of failure. We're all individuals after all. What works for one doesn't necessarily work for another. I think we all know that by now.
Me? I need to set myself a goal.
So, as 2009 comes to a close and 2010 is laid out in front of us like a blank page waiting to be filled, I'm getting ready to put my boots on and start the climb back up the mountain. Running on the theory that the only way is up and with my fingers firmly crossed that I can remember how to write a book from beginning to end, I'm officially marking Monday 4th January in the internet diary as my first day back to work. With the office that took me nigh on a year to finish (yes, I promise to take pictures and post them), a brand new computer, Twitter ready for updates and the determination to report in even if I get diddly squat done in a day, I'm gonna see if I can still tell a story and drag myself the heck out of this slump.
I'm washing my hands of 2009, leaving the bad karma behind and will welcome anyone who wants to join me in doing the same on the dawn of a fresh and (hopefully) HAPPY NEW WRITING YEAR.
Friday, August 14, 2009
No, I haven't forgotten about this. Almost done folks! Bear with me...
Missed Part Fifteen of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here
- Getting ready to Submit.
“It stands to reason that you want to get your editor to read your story. Therefore, it's obvious that you want to present her with as attractive a package as possible. How do you accomplish this? By following standard literary manuscript form.”
That's how The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes begins the chapter that deals with the professional side of submitting a manuscript. At this point our story is told, the editing is done, and we're at that scary point of the process where we're ready to send it out into the big, bad world of publishing all on it's little ownsome. Now, in fairness, some of the things you will have done to give yourself the best chance of making it out of the slush pile, is to have researched the market before you began. Not everyone does it that way round, and I'll admit I wasn't one of them the first time out, but when it comes to the romance genre, the best way to get an editor or agent's attention is to have done your homework. In category/series romance, the editor will need to know what line you're aiming for so they can keep that in mind as they read the manuscript. Think of it as a 'ballpark' area. Because in fairness some of the dividing lines between categories can be closer than you might think. In the case of The Bridal Bet, I pitched it at Modern/Presents because there was at least one sex scene in it. Yes folks, I was THAT naïve. As it was, when I sold, my editor told me they felt it was best suited to the Romance Line and we therefore had to remove the more detailed sex scenes. Hey – they wanted to BUY THE BOOK – was I gonna say no?! So don't worry too much if you're uncertain about the category/line you would best fit in. A GREAT STORY will sell regardless of whether or not you pitch it at the right line. On the flipside there are also some great stories that don't sell because lines are changing, or there isn't a place for it currently, etc., etc., but that doesn't mean it can't sell somewhere else or further down the line. A big part of selling your story is the right desk at the right time with the right editor. No-one can plan ahead for that. We, as authors, do our part by telling the best story possible and giving the manuscript the best chance of selling by submitting it in a professional manner and after that it's out of our hands. Accept that folks. It's just how it is.
So once you've done your research about the Agent/Publisher/Editor/line or category you're aiming for, there are some basics you will want to follow. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes gives us another useful list for this, which I'll put in colour with my comments below.
1/ Everything must be typed.
Seems fairly obvious, but some people may prefer to write the story long-hand and at the end of the day the person you are sending the story to won't just be reading your story during the course of the day. Therefore everything is typed so they don't have decipher handwriting. Because if they do, it drags them out of the story, doesn't it?
2/ Use good quality white paper.
Again, seems obvious, and may even be a tad of a moot point if you're submitting somewhere where they accept email submissions. But plain white paper combined with typed words makes for ease of reading. The book suggests a 14-pound weight with nothing beyond 20-pounds. I would translate that as not so flimsy it rips as easily as tissue paper, not so heavy you have to mortgage the house to post it. And remember you may have to post it more than once if there are a few rounds of revisions. I can't remember the exact amount I spent posting my first one over three odd times, but I can remember it wasn't cheap. The books says 'onion skin and coarse papers' are unacceptable. Wish I'd known that first time out. I invested in very pretty cream paper with a ripple effect to the touch. It cost a fortune, but I'm a fan of pretty paper. Wouldn't even occur to me to use that now. We live and learn...
3/ Type on one side only, double-spaced.
Basic reason for this again is ease of reading. There's a chance if you have type on both sides of the paper it may come through a little on the other side, making it more difficult. Remember the person reading your manuscript will read a LOT of them. Anything that drags them out of the story (and that includes eye strain) is B-A-D. As well as helping with that, double-spacing allows room for clearly circling words, not just at the read-through stage in editing before the manuscript is submitted, but with the same thing when an editor/agent reads through.
4/ Use a standard typeface.
Ease of reading again. No fancy, floaty or scrawly fonts. Something nice and clear like Times New Roman or Arial or Courier New or even Book Antiqua. And no – the editor/agent won't reject a great manuscript if it's in a font they wouldn't normally use so long as it's clear, simple and neither too small or too large. I'll work in anything from a 12 to a 14 point (more the former and in Courier New if I'm being honest), depending on the font and with the page set at 100%. But again, there's no point worrying too much about the point size not being perfect so long as the letters aren't teeny, because when it comes to word count or page count, an editor is only interested in the COMPUTER WORD COUNT of the manuscript as a whole (in my experience). Just use common sense for this one is my advice. If possible check with an editor or agent or online (in case there's somewhere it's written down that I don't know of) but rule of thumb comes down to ease of reading.
5/ Use standard margins.
Margins are spaces for the editor/agent to make notes when they're reading. One inch top, right and bottom with an inch an a half on the left is The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes advice, but personally I don't see why an inch all round, or an inch a quarter left and right, would make that much of a difference in the greater scheme of things. Again, a WELL TOLD STORY will get an editors attention first and foremost so long as they can read it without getting a migraine. Some editors/agents may like one layout more than another. But prior to selling, so long as your manuscript is neat, tidy, on a medium weight paper, double spaced, single-sided and has a margin all around, you're good to go.
6/ Put your name and address on the first page.Personally what I did was use the cover page of the manuscript for the working title, next line said by 'Author Name' and then below that I wrote my address in the standard way, complete with postcode and country and I added a contact number and email address. All centred in the middle of the page. When you send a requested full manuscript, it's also worth adding the editor reference number (if there is one) and making sure the envelope you post it in is addressed directly to them. The story itself then started on the next page with Chapter One. At this point they are not interested in dedications as this is considered an embellishment when the book goes to print, sometimes accompanied by a reader letter. If submitting by email, I would recommend having the title of the book in the subject line and sending it to yourself in a blind copy so you can be sure it got there if the company doesn't have an automatic response to emails received. The Mills & Boon offices, once you are published, have a dedicated email address for incoming manuscripts and I do this the exact same way, sending another email straight after to my editor to let her know I've sent it in. Though at this point, in fairness, I don't have to put my address on the cover page. She knows where I live. Scary thought that now that I think about it...
7/ Put your last name and a sequential page number top right on every page.
Erm. Not how I do it I'll admit. I put the working title and 'by Trish Wylie' on two lines on the left hand side of the header and the sequential numbers to the right. The sequential numbers running from start to finish throughout the duration of the entire manuscript from the first page of Chapter One in the same way it would in a book. I also have a footer that contains the words 'Copyright Trish Wylie' and the year, but that's optional and I must admit I don't always do it. For copyright reasons it IS worth having a copy of the manuscript with the date on it but some people simply cover this by keeping a copy on their computer or by emailing the manuscript to themselves so it's dated. Each to their own and so far it's never been a problem for me, but better safe than sorry, right? It's not a bad idea to email a copy of the manuscript to yourself anyway, just in case the equivalent of the apocalypse happens in writing terms and your hard drive fries and takes the manuscript with it to computer heaven. Now THAT'S a scary thought! One that sent me straight out to buy an external hard drive. Any day now I'll remember to use it.
8/ At the end of the story, write 'The End'.
Might seem like a moot point if there aren't any more pages, but the last thing you want is for an editor to go hunting for one, particularly if your story ends in such a way where there is the suggestion of more. Again this is something I don't do any more and again it's a teeny tiny thing. But remember, we're out to get an editor/agent's attention first time out so the less to distract them the better. Type 'The End' and they know they're done. You can be a lazy ass like me after you've sold...
That then brings us to how you package the manuscript and cover/query letters and the required synopsis (shudder!). A COVER LETTER is basically a short introduction. It is NOT your life story, it is NOT personal details, it should be laid out like a business letter. In other words, not how I did it. Again this isn't something that will cost you a sale if you've written a great story, so don't chew your fingernails to the quick over it! And again there is PLENTY of advice on this subject online. A cover letter for a partial is not the same as a query letter/pitch in my opinion. Particularly when the partial is accompanied by a synopsis. In this case it's an introduction to who you are, any writing experience you may have, a brief description of your story that may include some of the themes the line you're aiming for uses, the word count of the story and if it's COMPLETE. By telling an editor/agent the story is complete they know they can expect to receive the full manuscript fast if they request it. And this is another of the reasons I'm very much in favour of finishing a manuscript before submission. The last thing you want is to receive the request for the full and to then have to scramble for weeks or months to complete it, while the story becomes dim in the mind of the editor/agent and in your rush to finish you don't do the best possible job of TELL THE STORY, therefore lessening your chances of making a sale.
A QUERY or pitch is a different beast. It's even briefer than a cover letter and much more matter of fact while at the same time lacking in the details a synopsis may supply, so therefore without any 'back-up' so to speak. In my opinion, one of the best sources for help with agent queries is Query Shark, where you can learn from others mistakes, see how they improved and even send in your own query for a chance at one-on-one advice – if you don't mind it being done for all to see. These are aimed primarily at VERY busy people and at an Editor or Agent meeting during a conference you may have only fifteen minutes to tell them about your story AND fit in a chat about any other work you have or what you hope for from your career. Your query/pitch therefore has to be succinct and to the point. It's an art unto itself and worth putting work into when it comes to both research and practise. It's also something I personally have very little experience with, so I won't try to pretend I do when there are others much more capable of handing out advice on the subject. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes doesn't have much to say on the subject either I'm afraid;
“If you're trying to hit a major market, it's a good idea to query first. A brief letter, saying who you are and what you want to submit, will suffice. Not only might this open the editor's door a tiny crack later, but no response to your query means 'no' – which could save months when your solicited manuscript otherwise might languish on the floor beside the editor's desk with all the other unsolicited material.”
The SYNOPSIS is basically the equivalent of a film or book review, without the personal opinion. It gives the title of the story and possibly even the setting and a little about the main characters at the top of the page and then goes on to tell us what happens in the story in the same order that things occur. One of the best way to practice doing this brings us to:
Task Thirty-Nine: Take a movie you've watched or a book you've read and recount what happened in it from start to finish in two pages or less. Did it include the names of the characters and their relationships to each other? Did it focus on the main characters? Did it tell the story in the order things happened? Were there times when you embellished on the details of setting, surrounding, etc. instead of the characters and what was happening to them? Were the key turning points/main plot points included? Could anyone reading your description relate it to the story and have more than a fair idea of what's going on?
This my friends is what a synopsis is and the kind of questions you need to be asking yourself. In a synopsis the editor/agent doesn't need embellishment or to know about the clothes they wear, the surroundings beyond where they are, scents or sounds, what they ate or drank or any of the other details that add depth to the story. They want to know about the CHARACTERS and WHAT HAPPENS TO THEM during the story. It's that simple and that complicated. But practising with a body of work that is not your own and you aren't emotionally attached to can be one of the best ways of training yourself to write a synopsis. Remember to remove your point of view from it. It's worth reading a few movie/book reviews to see how much was a description of the story and how much was opinion so you can see the difference, but the rule of thumb is that you are NOT re-telling the story in the same depth. A synopsis by dictionary definition is 'a brief summary of the plot of a novel, motion picture, play, etc.' Emphasis on BRIEF and SUMMARY and PLOT.
You can find submission guidelines for most agents/publishers on their websites. Look for them. Read any examples you can find. Look at the most recent book they have bought or released. For Harlequin Mills & Boon in London a submission consists of a SYNOPSIS and the first three chapters of the book (the PARTIAL) and may or may not have a cover letter. Mine did. They don't insist there is one. And you CAN submit by email. For the lines edited out of the New York Offices, Harlequin asks for a QUERY LETTER and a SYNOPSIS, they DO NOT accept partials and it is done by post. Both offices accept original work from authors who do not have an agent and you can find submission details here. NOT ALL PUBLISHERS are the same, NOT ALL AGENTS will represent romance. So DO YOUR RESEARCH.
If submitting by email, follow the recipients instructions to the letter. It's the same by post, but by post you will want your manuscript bound with a rubber band (no staples or binders!) and a large enough envelope to allow it to travel flat, without any folding. If you want the manuscript returned you will need to include another envelope, with your address on the front and the postage paid and in your cover letter you will have to specifically request it is returned.
DO NOT submit the manuscript in multiple submissions to various publishers/editors/agents at the same time. They like to have first refusal. Yes, that can be frustrating when it comes to waiting times, but such is the game of submission. On the subject of waiting times you are going to have to learn patience. Do not expect to hear anything back at great speed. A query may be answered faster, it may not be answered at all. But in general three to four months is the minimum amount of time you should give whoever you have sent the manuscript to before you follow up with a POLITE inquiry. I believe Mills & Boon has an email address specifically for this and in my experience you will at some point receive a brief letter or compliments slip to say they have received the partial/manuscript. The next step on the ladder may be a form rejection letter, the request for a full or a revisions letter. You WILL NOT necessarily receive feedback. In my experience the offer to buy a manuscript comes in the form of a phone call from the editor you will be working with in the future, hence why it's known as THE CALL. Of course if you're with an agent the call may come from them and they will also deal with your inquiries regarding waiting time. It's only when time zones are involved that the offer may possibly come in the form of an email, but they're rare in my experience. Does the call come on a specific day of the week? Again – not necessarily. But I can tell you that the vast majority of books in London are officially bought at the weekly acquisitions meeting which occurs on a Friday. This is when the editorial staff gets together and sit around a big table to 'pitch' the books they have ready. It's the final step on the ladder. To my horror as a first-timer, I was told by my then editor that there have been occasions when manuscripts are rejected at the acquisitions stage. I would assume this is because of an upcoming change to lines or editorial, but thankfully these occasions are rare and if worse comes to the absolute worst, there is every chance you will be invited to submit again as soon as possible to the same editor.
Basically when it comes down to it, you want your manuscript to have the best chance of selling. So you tell the best story you can, you make it as good as you can and you submit in a way the people you're sending it to want, remain patient while it's there, polite in your communication with them and businesslike when it comes to any requests they make. You DO NOT want to prejudice them against your manuscript in any way, shape or form. It's also worth remembering that many publishers/agents don't like multiple submissions to THEM. So no sending three manuscripts at the same time or under different names either. If you're sending to a publisher or agency with more than one editor/agent then there is no guarantee those submissions will all land on the same desk or on several desks at the same time. This can be incredibly awkward for the people concerned. You want to build a one-on-one working relationship with whoever buys from you, so it's best NOT to start off on the wrong foot when this person holds your career in the palm of their hands...
Once you DO sell, a whole new world will open up to you. There will be many, many things to learn and a whole new set of questions to ask. At this point the romance writing community again comes into it's own with the sharing of information. ASK and someone will answer you.
For anyone who might want a template for a manuscript, I have one that was given to me by a friend when I started out and have used for many, many, many books. It is in a Word Doc and you can download it from my website here. Meanwhile, two more topics to go and we're DONE!
- CHECK BACK for more of this 'mini-workshop'. Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Life has been getting in the way somewhat, and this subject has ended up a LOT longer than I'd thought it would, so apologies again for the delay, and for the fact we might end up with a post or two more than I thought we would. A big THANKS to everyone who has commented to say they're finding the Mini-Workshop useful! It makes doing it worthwhile!!! Once we're done I'll run a Q&A for anyone who has questions not covered in the topics, and for anyone who wants to brainstorm something from their manuscript/WIP they're uncertain or worried about. Meanwhile, onwards and upwards...
Missed Part Fourteen of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here
- Approaching The Finish Line:
This follows neatly on from the subject of stopping your manuscript before it's finished to move on to the next shiny story that just won't let go in your head. Only this time, we're talking about sending your manuscript away before it can be the best possible story. Yep, we're talking about the EDITING process. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “Writing a story – any story – can be a fatiguing process if your project has been a complex short story or – harder – a novel, you will probably come to the end of your first, or second draft in a state not only of weariness, but also of a certain amount of anxiety. You want to be done with this arduous task – to have it finished and sent out somewhere, so you can at least relax a bit... and perhaps begin to think of some new project.”
Remember I talked about BLEEDING ON THE PAGE and how some authors are emotionally drained by the end of the book? Well, this is the end result of that. Plus it comes down to what kind of writer you are again. The PANTSTER in me, will go with the flow and write, write, write when the story grows wings, picking up speed as I approach the end, so sometimes I will write through the night while the words are flowing. Over time I've learned that my body can go without sleep for a maximum of thirty-six hours before I start to feel physically sick, but it isn't something I'd recommend. And I do think, over time, that it has contributed to the burn-out I've experienced this year. But even authors who try to stick to a regular timetable or 'office hours' have to balance their real life with their writing and will spend time with their brain locked in the story no matter what else they're doing. Add the emotional ups and downs your characters experience and it's not surprising that by the end of the book, you can be both mentally and physically exhausted. It's yet ANOTHER reason why giving yourself additional worries at the TELL THE STORY part of the process isn't a good idea. In a way it's masochistic. In another pretty pointless. Why pointless?
Well let's take the worries you have about the first three chapters of your book for example, shall we? There was a time when I obsessed about those chapters the same way you do (still do sometimes to be honest!), and it's completely understandable; particularly when those first three chapters are the partial you'll be submitting. We want it to grab the reader – propel her into the story – hook her in so she wants to read the rest of the book. With out a great SET-UP, we are lacking the foundation stone needed to build a strong story. So we obsess about it. When the simple truth is, no matter how much work you've done BEFORE you start the story, there is no way you can know your characters as well as you do by the END of the story. By the end of the story you will know them inside out and upside down. You will know WHY they did the things they did at the start of the story and you can SEE where all those little threads began. Only when the story is FINISHED and you come back to it at the EDITING stage, can you use that new knowledge to help strengthen those opening chapters...
Which brings us to the next point the book makes; “At such a time, when your enthusiasm for your current story is perhaps at an all-time low, and you ache both literally and figuratively, you run the grave risk of stopping a bit too soon – of failing to take one more critical look at what you planned to do, what you've ended up doing, and how well the job was done.”
Not only is this the time when you need to switch from the right brain where you store the skills to TELL THE STORY, to the left brain skills that will EDIT the story, it's also when you need to take a step back so you can see things clearly. You both literally and figuratively have to detach yourself from the manuscript. Just like stepping away from the keyboard when you hit a wall can help to clear your mind and allow you to see the path forwards, leaving your finished manuscript to 'simmer' for a few days can allow you to come back and edit it with fresher eyes. Telling the story might have felt like the hard part – and it's NOT simple - but EDITING is a whole different discipline and that can make it a harder task for some. You have to take everything you've learned about your characters during their journey, put it together with everything you've learned about writing and at the same time keep an eye on the emotional content while emotionally detaching yourself enough to cut what needs to go for the good of the story. And the latter can be the hardest task of all. Because having gone through the process of creativity that brought your story – sometimes kicking and screaming – into the world, we can sometimes become as attached to it as we would to a child we'd given birth to, and as the parent of this new child we can have problems with finding 'fault': A common problem with new writers is that they'll have spent so long trying to make every word perfect during the creative process, they might not be able to see the 'wood' for the 'trees' (something even multi-published authors can struggle with), which is where a CRITIQUE PARTNER can prove invaluable. A CRITIQUE PARTNER didn't give birth to this creation, so they can look at the story the way a reader would and they're working WITH YOU to get the best book possible.
On the flip-side, we can fall into the trap of constant over-editing and never letting go. This when the new writer (and yes, even the published author) can feel that just one more edit is needed. That edit then becomes another edit and another and another; sometimes changing back and forth so they ultimately end up with what they had in the first edit and sometimes removing something that an EDITOR will later ask them to put in! So when is enough a enough? When is it NOT enough? It's the dilemma all writers face, and the only one who can ultimately make that decision is YOU. You have to feel you have submitted the best possible work you could have at this stage of your career...
To this end, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “No revision checklist can suggest everything you might look at. Your awareness of your personal strengths and weaknesses as a writer, together with some idea of the kind of writer you want to become, will dictate some of the things high on your own checklist.”
I doubt there are many published authors – particularly authors who have been doing this for years and are multi-published – who will write down a check-list to follow at the editing stage. It's true of any job; the longer you do it, the more you will do things instinctively and with a skill borne of practice. But every author, no matter how established, will have a mental checklist of things they are looking for at the EDITING stage of their manuscript. They will have their eye on the things a computer can't do for them. Yes, we have a spell-checker, suggestions for grammar and a word-search to help us zone in on some of the basic things we can tighten up on or improve, but it's worth remembering that those are SMALL things. There's no point obsessing over them. An editor is looking for a well told STORY. The STORY COMES FIRST. So at the EDITING stage of your manuscript you should be looking at the same thing. This is why the very first thing you should do after your break away from the manuscript is to read it from start to finish without stopping. Many authors print off the manuscript at this point, instead of reading it off the screen. I have to admit I don't, but a great many people may be shocked by that. For me it's an eco-friendly thing (at least that's what I tell myself). If I were to print off every manuscript I wrote, even using the other side of a previous manuscript, added together with the paper copies I have of my books from the COPY EDITING department, I would now have a minimum of thirty eight to fifty seven manuscripts sitting around. And that for me is a real storage problem. But again it comes down to personal preference and what works for YOU. Instead of using paper, I have numerous files on my laptop. Because when I'm editing I'll make a copy of the original file and rename it REVISIONS, and I'll often open a third file and name it NOTES. Then anything I delete will go into the notes file in case I need it again, and the original will give me something to check back to if I get lost at any point. But then I'm someone who frequently works with a good half dozen windows open on my computer. As I type I have two office docs, Tweetdeck and seven internet pages on the go...
By reading your manuscript through from start to finish with a more critical eye, you can see if it MAKES SENSE. That, in my opinion, is the foundation stone of fiction. Each scene should flow from the scene before in a logical path the reader can follow while you ask yourself things like – did that happen too soon, is that 'in character', are their actions understandable, is the continuity correct? You can take notes, make notes in the margins or highlight a section with a red pen at this point. But you ARE NOT going to stop to correct it. Only once you have seen your story through the eyes of a reader will you know if it MAKES SENSE. On the second run, we go to work.
If you've printed off your manuscript, then this is the point where you will open the file on your computer and refer to the notes you made on the paper copy. If you're like me, this is where you'll open the REVISIONS file of the manuscript and bounce back and forth between the two. Fixing these problems first gives you a starting point. You may also run a spell check at this point if you haven't already done so, though it's worth keeping in mind that spell-checker won't recognize certain words as being 'wrong'. 'There' won't be recognized as being the incorrect version of 'their' or 'they're' for example - same with 'where' and 'were'. A grammar check will more than likely find these, but it will also make suggestions that you don't necessarily have to accept; particularly when it comes to dialogue. I'm not saying that correct grammar isn't important and I'm by no means saying a manuscript can't be much improved with the help of a grammar check, but what I am saying is that not everyone will speak in grammatically correct English. We will move words around, abbreviate them, speak 'out of rhythm' – particularly during an emotional outburst – and we want our characters dialogue to sound realistic, don't we? Take a character for whom English is a second language for instance; are they likely to get everything grammatically correct, or might there be times when they say the words in what we would consider to be the wrong order because that is how their native language would arrange the words? Will a small child use perfectly correct grammar? A teenager? It all comes back to the CHARACTERS again, doesn't it? And if we're writing in a characters INNER POV then they will think as they would speak. Having said all that, it IS worth using the spell-check and grammar facilities on your computer, because it's a couple less things to worry about. BUT we have to remember not to sweat the small things that can be corrected by the editing department after we sell.
With the basics done, we will revisit the beginning of the story with a greater knowledge of our characters and how they will think and react in the latter stages of the manuscript. Keeping in mind that we want to grab hold of the reader at this point, we have to ask ourselves a few basic questions. Does it start with an EVENT, that 'live at the scene' report that propels us straight into the action and introduces the viewpoint character to a 'THREAT'? Does that threat give them a GOAL? Did you get straight to it, or did you 'warm up your engines' with a BACK-STORY DUMP or a long passage of introduction that wasn't needed? Did you get the HERO and HEROINE onto the page as soon as possible?
With that in mind, I thought I'd give you a few examples of how I opened a story in my own books. Marriage Lost And Found started with a Prologue and an opening paragraph of; “It was in the gap between Christmas and New Year's, when people started thinking about what the New Year had to hold. About New Year's resolutions to help everything along in the right direction. That was when she made the decision to let go.”
Would you agree that immediately we have a season, a motivation and a goal? Would you agree we now know that it's the HEROINE whose viewpoint we are in? Are we propelled into the action?
From The Wedding Surprise we have; “'How bad is it, Dad, really? I need to know.'”
One line. But do we know there's a threat? Have we been propelled into the action? By asking a question in the opening line, we immediately give the reader an answer to look for and therefore a reason to continue reading. From the answer to this question comes the THREAT, from the threat comes the characters GOAL, that goal then leads to an ACTION which draws us further into the story...
From O'Reilly's Bride we have; “'We're just going to have to face up to the fact that we have no choice but to sleep together.'”
This time it's a statement of fact. But look at how that statement is worded. Is there a question in there the reader would need answered? Would the need to answer that question encourage them to read on? Does it propel the reader directly into the action?
From Rescued: Mother-To-Be we have; “'Welcome home, Eamonn.'”
Would it be safe to say there's a good chance Eamonn is the hero and that this statement is made by the heroine? What questions might the reader have? In this particular book the line has added significance because not only does it open the story, it's also the last line at the end of the story; having an addition depth to the statement that wasn't there before by the time we've taken that emotional journey with the characters...
From Breathless! We have the very simple; “'What can I do for you?'”
Would you agree it propels us into the action with a question? Might the answer to that question lead us to the character/s motivation and their GOAL? Is there are chance the answer will reveal something about the character/s? Does it therefore draw us into the story?
From His Mistress, His Terms we have an even simpler; “'Merrow O'Connell?'”
Another question. This time we're immediately introduced to the HEROINE. The reader is once again given a question to seek an answer to, and this time the question is immediately expanded on the same way it may have been in some of the other examples. Who IS Merrow O'Connell? Why does the person asking want to know? Would the question indicate they may not have met before? Why is this person looking for her? Who IS this person? And we're propelled into the action seeking answers that will lead to our characters motivations...
From Claimed By The Rogue Billionaire we have; “She was back. And Ashling Fitzgerald hadn't changed a bit in eight years, had she?”
Again, I have something that should hopefully spark the readers imagination and draw them into the story. If she was 'back', then Ashling Fitzgerald had obviously been 'away'. The viewpoint character then tells us how long she was gone for. Would it be safe to say the reader might ask why she was gone for so long, where she'd been, why she was back, who it is making this statement? I think we've established that I tend to start my books with some kind of question. It's my way of dealing with it. How did the author deal with it in a book from the line/category you're aiming for? Were there questions asked in the readers mind?
Task Thirty-Seven: Take a look at several romance novels from the line/category you're aiming for and examine how the author propelled you directly into the action with the FIRST LINE and FIRST PAGE. Did you have a clear idea of what was happening? Was it clear whose viewpoint the opening was in? What did the author use to set the scene and introduce the character/s?
At the beginning and as we progress through the story, the next thing to look for is the POV. Is it clear throughout or are there times when it might be confusing for the reader? How did you make that POV clear? How often did you change it during a scene? Are there times when having the POV remain the same throughout a scene would add to the suspense? Remember what we talked about when it came to sprinkling information about the characters and the back-story throughout the book so the reader gets to know them as they get to know each other. There's a fine line between letting the reader in to some of the characters inner secrets and lowering the tension by doing it. By holding some things back, the reader will start to ask questions of their own and make assumptions based on what they already know about the characters as the story progresses. For example, if we know one character is afraid of water or can't swim (as is the case in O'Reilly's Bride), then without having the hero know that we can up the undercurrent in a scene when they are on a boat and the hero thinks there is something wrong with the heroine. Was she emotional because she was afraid of the water? Or was she emotional about something else and uses her fear of water to avoid talking about it? The reader has to WANT TO KNOW what happens next. And one of the best ways to do that is to have them asking questions that the story will then reveal the answers to while leaving yet more questions to be asked and answered. What we have to make clear throughout is WHO is telling us the story at a particular moment in time so that we can see clearly where the misunderstanding happens, when the characters are hiding something from each other, and why they do the things they do and say the things they say.
Then we come to the TIME-LINE. This is a subject we haven't discussed before, because it's something we shouldn't overly-worry about during the phase of TELLING THE STORY. A PLOTTER may well have this down to a 'T' in the planning stages prior to beginning the book, but even a plotter will need to double-check it while EDITING. A chart can be the easiest way to go if you find yourself getting confused but there should always be what The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes calls 'time pointers' throughout the story. They give the reader a sense not only of season, but of the time-frame for the story, and should be peppered throughout. We're not talking about 'dating' the story here, as in a particular decade (though obviously this would be different in a historical romance where set periods of time in history may have a great influence on the plot), but more about making sure the characters time-frames match up for the sake of CONTINUITY. Jane cannot discover something has happened on Friday if John does it the following Sunday. John can't mention being apart from the heroine for a week if Jane sees him three days after their last meeting. It has to MAKE SENSE. I'll admit that the time frame is something I often struggle with from a different direction. Because my stories rely so heavily on ACTION and REACTION (as they should), and because I try to have the hero and heroine on the page together as often as possible (as they should be), there are times when I can suddenly realize the entire story has happened in a matter of days. One Night With The Rebel Billionaire would be an example of this, with the entire story, barring the epilogue, happening in the space of four odd days. This then raises the question of 'Can people fall in love in four days', particularly when they have strong conflicts? The way around it in this book was once again to go back to the characters. The answer was, the heroine felt she could, but as one of the hero's main conflicts was the fact he didn't think he could feel love, he couldn't. So how did I deal with that? I had an epilogue that was eighteen odd months later. The main story showed the emotional journey that brought them to the point where they had overcome their conflicts enough to TRY for a HEA. They'd had their BLACK MOMENT and the RESOLUTION, then the epilogue then brought us back at a later time so we could see how they'd GOT their HEA. Remember it comes down to READER EXPECTATION with the HEA. Even though, in the modern age, there are books that won't end with a marriage proposal, at the VERY LEAST there should be the suggestion there will be or that these two people will be together for the rest of their lives; THAT is the HEA the reader came to the book expecting to find. And let's face it, if an editor isn't happy with the lack of a marriage proposal at the end of a well told story, what is she more likely to do; reject the manuscript or ask for a revision to put one in? When it comes down to it time-frame wise, as is this case so much of the time with everything else, we once again go back to the CHARACTERS. They will tell us how long it takes to overcome their emotional conflicts and therefore give us the time-frame. It's up to the writer to make that time-frame clear to the reader.
Next we move on to the characters MOTIVATION and GOALS? Are they clear? Do they follow on logically as a REACTION to the ACTION? Are they contradictory to the goals they had earlier in the story? If so then what changed their motivation? EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. When looking at your manuscript with a more critical eye at the EDITING stage, you should be asking yourself that question and looking for the times it doesn't MAKE SENSE so you can fix it. How about those coincidences we wanted to avoid? Did you fall back on a PLOT DEVICE at some point instead of having things happen in a logical manner? Any time something seems to happen out of left field, you have to ask yourself if it happened sheerly for dramatic effect in an attempt to increase the conflict. Because if it did, you then have to ask if it made sense to the reader and if it added to the EMOTIONAL CONFLICT. If it didn't, then we have a problem that needs to be fixed. Remember it's always better to have the character experience something through an ACTION rather than an outside conflict or coincidence. They're not wimps. They DO something to drive the action. And through that action they learn something about each other and themselves that leads to a REACTION, a new GOAL and more ACTION so that the chain of events can continue.
Another place to take a closer look is at the beginning and endings of each chapter and scene. Just as I started my stories (in the examples given) with questions the readers can continue reading to find the answers to, we can use the goal/action/reaction/new goal chain of events to leave our reader with yet more questions which will in turn lead them continuing to turn the page. And this is important not just for the PAGE TURNING QUALITY of your story, but from the (possibly more pressing need for unpublished writers) point of view of encouraging an EDITOR to want to request the full manuscript so they can find out what happens next. Think back to what we talked about in the section dealing with SCENE STRUCTURE and ask yourself if the end of the scene/chapter left the reader with a new twist or realization that keeps them reading, while the next scene/chapter immediately opens with the characters reaction to what happened so they can find the answers and lead themselves to the next twist or realization. Personally I think this is doubly important at the end of a chapter. Because, speaking for myself as a reader, if I'm reading into the wee small hours or when in the bath, I will tell myself just 'one more chapter' and then I'll put the book down. If I find myself reading another chapter after that, then another then another, until I'm either bleary-eyed or wrinkled like a prune or both, then the author has done their job and held my attention; drawing me deeper and deeper into the story until I'm done.
So let's look at the comparisons between chapter openings and endings in the examples I gave you earlier. Marriage Lost And Found started with a Prologue and an opening paragraph of; “It was in the gap between Christmas and New Year's, when people started thinking about what the New Year had to hold. About New Year's resolutions to help everything along in the right direction. That was when she made the decision to let go.”
It ended with; “Her pen moved across the paper in fluid strokes. Suddenly words came, and she was letting the dream go.”
Are we still in the action? Is it clear whose viewpoint we're in? Would you agree the question the reader is left with could be, has she really let go of that dream? The answer might not necessarily be in the next scene, but it WILL be answered as the story progresses.
In The Wedding Surprise we started with; “'How bad is it, Dad, really? I need to know.'”
And ended the chapter with; “And, after all, how bad could this Aiden guy really be?”
Just as we knew there was a threat at the beginning of the chapter, by the end we have a fair idea another one is on it's way. How do we know that? Because we're now taking the question that has been asked and answering it ourselves with 'worse than you might think', which is exactly what the story will go on to tell us. Have we been kept in the action and encouraged to turn the page to find out? How will the reader find out if their assumption about Aiden is true? How will the heroine?Once again, from the answer to this question comes the THREAT, from the threat comes the characters GOAL, that goal then leads to an ACTION which draws us even further into the story...
In O'Reilly's Bride we started with; “'We're just going to have to face up to the fact that we have no choice but to sleep together.'”
And ended the chapter with; “'We still have time, Mary Margaret, don't worry.' His eyes glowed across at her in the soft light. 'Sweet dreams.'”
Another statement. But once again, look at how that statement is worded. Is there a question in there the reader would need answered? Might the reader possibly suspect the characters don't have as much time as the hero has said they have? Would the need to answer that question encourage them to read on? Does it propel the reader directly into the action?
In Rescued: Mother-To-Be we started with; “'Welcome home, Eamonn.'”
And ended the chapter with; “Not half as sorry as Colleen was.”
In this case, we're left wondering just what it is Colleen is sorry about. We have another question, even though it hasn't been worded as a question. The only way to discover the answer to that question? You can see where I'm going here...
It's the same in His Mistress, His Terms where we started with; “'Merrow O'Connell?'”
And ended the chapter with; “'I've run into a bit of a problem with that...'”
Now we need to know WHY it's a problem and how the heroine (who is saying this) is going to deal with it. How she deals with it is her REACTION to what has happened. Her plan to deal with it is her GOAL. Her GOAL leads to the ACTION and so on from scene to scene, chapter to chapter, start to finish.
And ended the chapter with; “But she'd never forgotten what happened next...”
As you can see from the examples there are several ways of leaving the reader with a question that needs to be answered. It can literally be a question, it can be a statement of fact that may be proved right or wrong as the story continues, it may simply be a line that leads us to the answer of a question the reader already has from earlier in the scene. But what that question is, in whatever form it may take, it's a reason for the reader to TURN THE PAGE and continue reading. In the case of Claimed By The Rogue Billionaire, the ending to the first chapter actually propels us into a 'flashback' scene where, not only does the reader get the answer to the question, 'What DID happen next?', there is also an opportunity for a little of the back-story that has led the characters to where they are at the start of the book. So while answering the question, more of the characters history and motivations are revealed to the reader; allowing them to understand some of the INNER CONFLICTS and where they come from.
Task Thirty-Eight: Take a look at several romance novels from the line/category you're aiming for and examine how the author propelled you further into the action with the end of a chapter/scene. Did you have a clear idea of what was happening? What did the author do to leave the reader with questions? How did they answer those questions as the story progressed?
Last of all, we'll look at the ending. This is the readers payoff, so we want to take the basic, most important question they had at the beginning of the book and answer it. Will these two characters get their HAPPILY EVER AFTER? As we've said, the reader knows they will from the beginning, before they even opened the cover of the book, but what we should have done during the telling of the story is place doubt in their mind. Then – after the BLACK MOMENT – when their doubt is at an all time high, we reward them for their patience and the EMOTIONAL ROLLER-COASTER we've placed them on, by giving them EXACTLY what they came to the book for. The basic question in a romance novel is 'Will they have a HEA?'. The answer from the writer is a resounding ;YES!'. But what we also have to remember is all those other questions we've asked throughout the story. Have they been answered too? ALL OF THEM? Because every doubt should now be removed from the characters' – and the READERS – mind. When they close the book, there should be no doubt that these two people will stay together for the rest of their lives through thick and thin; their lives enriched by the presence of each other. Just as we needed glimpses of their compatibility and happiness at a few points during the story to believe it was possible, we need to see it in spades at the end. Every fear, hope, doubt and need will be dealt with and the thing that held them back from each other – the INNER CONFLICT – will no longer be there. This is the ONE TIME in the book when your characters will be completely honest and open with each other. It's a HUGE step to take for anyone and involves a giant leap of faith, but what the reader should be left with is a deep and abiding sense of HOPE that a HEA is possible not only beyond the pages of the novel, but to a certain extent in real life too. A romance is a 'FEEL GOOD' experience in the end. It's part of the reason sales increase when times are tough in the real world. So don't skimp on the HEA in the last chapter!
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes creates a checklist of points for the writer to work from at the EDITING stage of the story, in a similar way to how an EDITOR will outline the REVISIONS she would like to improve the story. And I think for the beginner writer this can be quite useful, not just in keeping clear the things they're looking for, but in 'training' themselves to work from a list similar to those revisions. Remember we don't FORGET all these things when we're writing, but when we're at the creative stage it's all about TELLING THE STORY. So when we have a COMPLETED MANUSCRIPT we can come back with our checklist and remind ourselves of what we're looking for and what we might be able to improve on, lessen or even lose to strengthen the story. Only when we're happy with what we've done, is it time to let go. If you have a CRITIQUE PARTNER you can send it to them for a final read through and any final suggestions, but once that's done it's time to SEND IT OUT to a professional.You can of course make your own checklist, but I'll add the book's suggested list for you to look at and you can add your own points to it as needs be;
1/ Take a break when the first draft of your manuscript is complete.
2/ Check the story for acceptability to the line you're aiming for word-count wise so you know how much you need to delete/can add at the EDITING stage.
3/ Read the story from start to finish.
4/ Fix any initial problems you may have found on the read through and run a spell/grammar check on your computer if you haven't already done so.
5/ Take a closer look at the opening of your story and think about how you can tighten it up to propel the reader into the ACTION.
6/ Check the POV the story is in and make sure it's clear to the reader.
7/ Check the time-line/CONTINUITY of your story and any RESEARCH facts you're unsure of.
8/ Examine the characters motivations more closely. Does it MAKE SENSE? Does EVERYTHING HAPPEN FOR A REASON?
9/ Be on the look out for PLOT DEVICES and EXTERNAL CONFLICTS.
10/ Read the chapter/scene endings to make sure the reader is left with a question that will drive them towards the next scene/chapter.
11/ Think about the characters ACTION and REACTION. Does it MAKE SENSE? Does the PLOT make sense? Is there anything in the story that could be removed without effecting the main story? Are there SECONDARY CHARACTERS who are unnecessary or could be on the page for less time?
12/ Look at the ending and make sure that all the questions have been answered in the RESOLUTION and HEA. Was enough time spent convincing the reader the HEA would last beyond the end of the story?
With all done and our manuscript ready to go out into the big, bad world, we then move on to the business end of things, and another checklist...
- CHECK BACK for more of this 'mini-workshop'. Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
Monday, July 20, 2009
Missed Part Thirteen of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here
- Wasted Plots:
This part of The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes didn't mean what I thought it was going to mean. To me, this subject has more to do with those stories in an authors head that battle hard for attention, even though you're currently working on something else. For the beginner writer, it can prove a form of procrastination, or worse still; a reason to leave one story unfinished in order to start what seems like a much better idea. The first stepping stone to becoming a published author is the ability to actually FINISH THE MANUSCRIPT. Many people can't. When you do sell, you'll be expected to produce a minimum of two full manuscripts a year (depending on your publisher). So again this is an example of using your time as a pre-published author to hone your professional skills. Put it this way; even if you finish a story and decide NOT to submit it, the lessons you learn while writing it and the difficulties you overcome ADD to your LEARNING CURVE.
What do we do with those stories in our head that won't go away? We OPEN A FILE IN OUR COMPUTER and we SUMMARIZE THEM for FUTURE REFERENCE. I have literally dozens. I have files where I jot down lines or phrases I find inspiring or links to articles that might one day launch a plot. I never delete a rejected proposal, because who knows? Maybe one day I'll get to write it. I have a photo file for potential hero inspiration, one for heroines, and one for pictures of settings I trip across when I'm doing something else. I then FORGET ABOUT THEM until I finish the book I'm working on, because until that book is finished I don't want to be distracted from the story, the characters, or the fictional world my imagination is inhabiting. Even the manuscripts you finish but don't submit, or submit and have rejected, could one day be dug out and looked at with more educated eyes, revised, and turned into something saleable. I know people who have done it. You just never know. But TELLING THE STORY and FINISHING THE MANUSCRIPT is a step you simple CAN'T SKIP on the ladder to success. The only time you should EVER set a manuscript to one side and move on to another is when you have REVISIONS on another manuscript you have submitted or when an EDITOR tells you to set it to one side or rejects the proposal that goes with it. It's why, in my opinion, it's always better to get the go ahead from your editor before you start working on a new story. I know people who are published who have had books rejected three or four books in because they didn't wait for that approval. When you're a published author, time is money, and it makes more sense to spend your writing time working on a manuscript that will SELL than it is to work on one that might not. That's not to say there aren't plenty of published authors around the globe who will work on manuscripts between deadlines or contracts for other books, but those authors will set that manuscript to one side when they have a deadline for a contracted book, and they'll come back to it when the job is done.
Now at this point I can hear the cries for mercy from writers who have abandoned fledgling manuscripts because they'd dug too deep a hole to climb out of, or because it sucked nine year old lemons, or they'd suddenly had an epiphany and realized everything they were doing wrong and felt starting afresh was the better option (add your own reason here at will). My question will then be, have you finished a manuscript? If the answer is yes, then I can forgive you a few stalls in the early days. If your answer is no, then I'm going to ask just how many of those fledgling manuscripts you've left languishing n your hard drive. One or two I can forgive IF you promise me you're going to finish the one you're working on now. If the answer is four, five, six or in to double figures we have a problem. Even if your finished manuscript DOES suck nine year old lemons, the important thing is you FINISHED IT. You get to reward yourself for that regardless of the somewhat rancid, vaguely citrus smell that surrounds you. Chalk the end result down to experience. Have a ceremonial burning in the back yard if it's cathartic or shove it in a drawer to cringe over for old times sake when you're published and famous and need something to remind you of how far you've come. The most important thing is the completion. That tells you, you're capable of telling a story from start to finish. Then you remember the mistakes you made, you store them in your memory, and you dig them back out at the EDITING STAGE of your NEXT completed manuscript once you've TOLD THE STORY. Don't add 'this one sucks nine year old lemons so I'll forget it and start something new' to the list of excuses that hold you back from your dream of being published!
So if The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes wasn't talking about the new stories that are vying for attention, what was it talking about, I can hear you ask. It IS still talking about wasted plot ideas, however it's more about the plot points within a story; which leads us to THREADS and SECONDARY CHARACTERS (again). It starts by saying; “If you've never written a book-length story before, one of the many interesting (and possibly dismaying) things you'll learn during construction of the first draft is simply how many incidents and events you have to dream up in order to 'make length'. It's possible to write a one-idea short story. But even the shortest novel contains dozens of plot ideas, sub-plots, minor incidents, and significant events.”
This is where PLOTTERS will have the edge over PANTSTERS. A PLOTTER will have all of those points planned out in advance and will stick to them, a PANTSTER runs the risk of hitting a point in the story where they really don't know what to do next, have several different directions to choose from, or head off in a direction that eventually leads to a brick wall. Speaking as a PANSTER I know that's one of the risks I take, so I completely get what the book is saying here. Having said that, for me, it's one of the things that opens me up to new directions I might not have explored if I'd had scene after scene set in stone before I started. But for the beginner writer, even the short format of a 50, 000 word romance can seem like a daunting task and filling those 50,000 words can feel like climbing Mount Everest. They can spend weeks on end thinking up scene after scene after scene for their story. The problem with this is that sometimes they lose sight of the fact those 'plot ideas' are dictated by what precedes and follows each scene in a logical chain of events driven by the CHARACTERS and their REACTIONS to the things that happen. That's not to say there aren't writers out there who can put together a story in a similar way to slotting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The difference is, those authors will have a sharp focus on the story they are telling, they'll be able to bridge any 'gaps' without the reader noticing the seams in the finished product and when they go back to EDIT the manuscript they'll be able to see the threads of the story clearly and where some of them may have unravelled. It's not something I'd recommend for the beginner writer working on their first manuscript and there's most definitely an art to it, but it's not IMPOSSIBLE. The main thing to remember is: EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. (I know you know this, because you wrote it on a post-it note, didn't you?)
Keeping that in mind, every plot point, sub-plot, minor incident or significant event must drive the story forwards and ADD to the story. There's no room for the superfluous. Running on the assumption that we now know every plot point will add something to the story, we'll move on to sub-plots: Sometimes there simply isn't room for a sub-plot in a short format romance. Or IS there? Let's look at that a little closer. The main plot is the LOVE STORY between the hero and the heroine and their EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. The sub-plot could therefore be considered the events surrounding them. Let's say we have that heroine who is fighting to save the home it looks like she's going to lose. The sub-plot would be how she saves it or how losing it effects her life and how she deals with the loss and moves on with her life; letting go of the past. It therefore has an emotional impact and adds to the emotional journey. If the hero supplies the solution to her problem then he is also tied to the sub-plot, and it adds to the main plot by throwing them together so they have to deal with their attraction and emotions. Which therefore has an emotional impact and adds to the emotional journey. Ordinarily a sub-plot in fiction is considered to be a secondary storyline or plot strand, but in a short format romance there isn't room in the word-count, so it has to be tied to the main plot. It can't run independently. Obviously this is different in a longer book, where it's usual for there to be sub-plots and secondary characters with a plot strand of their own. Independent from the main storyline. There may be times when the 50, 000 word count feels like Mount Everest, but EVERY WORD COUNTS when it comes to the LOVE STORY. That means EVERYTHING in the book must be inextricably linked to that EMOTIONAL JOURNEY and ADD something to it. If it doesn't, it shouldn't be there, and that's something we need to remember at the EDITING stage of our manuscript...
Then we move on to minor incidents. The trick with minor incidents is they may SEEM minor at the time, but at some point later on in the story, they will link up with other seemingly minor incidents to form a THREAD in the story that adds to the main storyline. This is often where SECONDARY CHARACTERS will briefly appear to supply information that may seem insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but will later be expanded to peel away another layer of that onion I likened to the main characters personalities. In The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, the author refers to a doorman who has appeared in a storyline to supply information to the main protagonist. This doorman shouldn't make a one-off appearance the book says. It says the reader will be left asking questions about what else he knows, what he held back, what could be learned from him if he appeared again. The problem with those kinds of questions in a short format romance is that in order to answer them, the secondary character has to make another appearance. And then possibly another one. Then maybe one more because the author suddenly thought of something else he could add to the story. That then leads to the secondary character taking up more and more of the word-count with each appearance. Something we can't afford to lose. So in a short format romance the secondary character has to reveal something about the hero or heroine during their brief appearance, then, later on in the story, that THREAD is picked up again to justify his consumption of our precious words.
An example of this would be secondary characters in The Millionaire's Proposal. As it's a round-the-world story, the main characters move from one setting to another; making it difficult for the introduction of a secondary character to reveal something and then come back later in the story to expand on it. The solution to this was to have small appearances by different secondary characters who added to the THREAD in the story. The information revealed by one secondary character, although seemingly 'minor', was later picked up by another secondary character who added another seemingly minor detail, which was then picked up later in the story when the THREAD led to an emotional reveal from the hero (to the reader). That THREAD was crucial to the INTERNAL CONFLICT because it was the reason the hero was unable to surrender himself emotionally to the heroine. It could be argued that every plot point, sub-plot, minor incident and significant event is a THREAD, and I'd agree with that. The difference in a romance is that all THREADS – like roads – lead back to the main characters in some form or another, because the hero and heroine are the focal point of the story. Ronan, the hero in The Millionaire's Proposal, was losing his sight. You might think that adding hints of how that effects him to the story in a THREAD is anything but a 'minor incident'. But look at it this way: Does Ronan losing his sight effect his ability to fall in love? No, it doesn't. The heart doesn't have boundaries; the head supplies those. The INTERNAL CONFLICT stems from the inner battle. Technically that would make losing his sight an EXTERNAL CONFLICT in the love story and a PLOT DEVICE. What makes it a THREAD that links to and adds to the love story is the INTERNAL CONFLICT it causes for Ronan when the reader understands how losing his sight effects him EMOTIONALLY. How he dealt with the INTERNAL CONFLICT caused by losing his sight (and the restrictions that would come with it) versus falling in love with a woman who was just beginning to spread her wings gave us a huge part of his EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. So the story had two secondary characters who made brief appearances to set up the scene where Ronan reveals the true depth of his feelings about losing his sight.
The first secondary character appeared early on in the story and had a conversation with Ronan. From the dialogue alone we got;
“'I'm assuming from the fact we're avoiding talking about it that your appointment didn't go so well.'
'We're still not talking about it.'
'Looking to help me drown my sorrows? 'Cos I should warn you I have a curfew these days – so if we're heading out on a pub crawl, we need to get started sooner rather than later.'
'How can you make with the funnies?'
'How can I not? I'm Irish, Al – you take away my sense of humour, you may as well put me in a box and dig a hole.'
'You're barely thirty-two, Ronan.'
'And I've had my whole life to prepare for this so it's not like it's that big a shock. My uncle has lived with it since he was a kid – so I'm the lucky one.'
'You can't take this trip on your own – not this time.'
'Watch me try.'”
Keeping in mind that there were additional LAYERS of INNER POV, movement and description of the setting around the dialogue, hopefully you can see it's the DIALOGUE in this scene that has set up a THREAD which can be followed throughout the story. What did we learn about the HERO? We learned he'd had an appointment that didn't go well, which led to the reveal that whatever was wrong with him meant he now had a 'curfew', which led to the seemingly minor detail of his age and how it was young for whatever was wrong with him, which led to the reveal that whatever it is it's hereditary, which then led to the statement that Ronan couldn't make his trip alone (which Ronan disputed). The scene gave the general impression that Ronan was coping just fine with his problem. But was he? He could have 'tried' to make that trip alone, but instead he took the heroine with him. During that trip, the story eventually brought us to another secondary character who had another conversation with Ronan;
“'How are you managing to hide it?'
Actually it had taken some pretty intensive forward planning, which could only be a good thing in the long run, he felt – a practice run of sorts. He'd learned how to use his vast knowledge of their destinations to makes sure he always have her plenty to look at so she wouldn't focus too much on him – and so far so good. All he had to do was maintain the deception all the way back to the Emerald Isle and he'd be grand. She's never have to know and he'd never have to see pity in her eyes.
He opened his mouth to voice the one concern he's had about bringing her here, 'I might need you and Frank to help me some later. You still eat in the dark by hurricane lamp, right?'
He knew she knew what he was aiming at when her hand reached across and squeezed his, her voice threaded thick with emotion. 'Already?'
'Just don't let me go making a fool of myself.'”
Picking up on what we'd learned earlier in the story, and following the hints to this thread sprinkled throughout, we can see how much effort it's taking for Ronan to hide his secret from the heroine. We also know he has problems with the dark (his condition made him night blind, with tunnel vision during the day before it progressed to total blindness) and that he isn't dealing with his condition as well as he seemed to be in the earlier scene. What then happened was those 'minor details' or 'hints' in a continuous THREAD through the story eventually led us to a scene where Ronan made a strategic mistake and found himself outside, in the dark, totally blind and helpless, and (crucially) alone with the heroine; who he had fallen in love with (even if he still hadn't admitted it to himself) and was still hiding his condition from. In that scene his emotions were fully revealed to the reader with INNER POV. And if you look carefully, you can see how the scenes were layered on top of each other in a series of stepping stones that peeled away the layers and finally revealed the deeply felt emotions that were a HUGE part of his INTERNAL CONFLICT. The first scene I've used as an example revealed the details through DIALOGUE (hence why I was able to cut everything else out to make my point), the second scene had more INNER POV than dialogue, and the scene that had the big emotional reveal for the reader did it all in INNER POV because the heroine was the only other character there and the hero didn't want her to know...
Hopefully what this demonstrates is not only how 'minor incidents' can be threaded together to add to the main story, but that sprinkling details throughout the story can gradually build a picture without giving everything away all at once or in a long diatribe; thus adding to the pacing, allowing the reader to follow a chain of events that make sense, and doubling the emotional impact of the reveal. Things aren't always what they initially seem to be in a romance novel. Ronan wasn't dealing with his condition. The fact he wasn't led to denial. Falling in love with the heroine made him face up to what he was losing and the loss of something he hadn't expected to find; making the loss of his sight even harder to take than it already was. From that point of view, falling for the heroine was a 'disaster'. The emotional reveal to the reader (hopefully) made it clear how big a disaster it was from Ronan's POV. That disaster then led to the goal of gradually distancing himself from her despite their growing closeness, which then led to the BLACK MOMENT, the RESOLUTION and the HEA.
Which brings us neatly to the topic of 'significant events'. I think it's safe to say the emotional reveal I just used as an example was a significant event in The Millionaire's Proposal. Significant events are the moments where something major happens: ACTION. That leads to the hero or heroine being forced to re-evaluate and form a new GOAL; REACTION. The most common mistakes here are when the 'significant event' comes out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, and without any set up or hint it was going to happen. In other words when it doesn't MAKE SENSE and is thrown in for the sake of 'conflict'. But as we know by now, CONFLICT is a result of the characters EMOTIONAL RESPONSE to something that has happened. A 'significant event' is therefore not an earthquake or a car crash or an alligator landing in the room. It's a significant step forwards or backwards on the characters EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. It's something the main characters perceive as a 'disaster'.
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes then says; “Professional novelists recognize that it's sometimes a problem, coming up with enough events and incidents in the first place. For that reason, they always think... (of) looking for ways to make maximum use of everything they invent. The grand by-product of such thinking is that more and more characters and events take on significance; various scenes and plot lines begin to link more tightly together, making the novel tighter, and more logical: and the reader tends to read with more attention and pleasure because every page is sure to be important not only for itself but in terms of later development.”
When writers talk about tightening up a manuscript at the revisions stage, this is EXACTLY what they're referring to...
Task Thirty-Five: Pick a random page/scene at the beginning of the romance novel from the line/category you're aiming for, and make a list of everything you have learned about the characters in that one page. Then pick another random page/scene from the middle of the novel and near the end and do the same thing. Have the characters changed between scenes? What is different? What might have happened to bring about that change?
By taking random pages/scenes from a book and imagining scenarios that could have been a catalyst for change in the characters, you are flexing your creative muscles and thinking in terms of a chain of events that follow a logical path from beginning to HEA. This is the exact same method you will use at the creative stage of your manuscript when you are TELLING THE STORY. Ask yourself if the scenarios you have created add something to the characters EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. Do those scenarios lead the characters to some form of 'disaster' that leads to them forming a new GOAL? Always keep in mind that every scenario or plot point you come up with must ADD to the story and will be CHARACTER DRIVEN.
Task Thirty-Six: At the EDITING stage of your manuscript, think again about the SECONDARY CHARACTERS you have in your story. Was the information learned about the hero and heroine through the secondary characters part of a thread that adds to the main love story? Were there any questions left from the scene/s with the secondary character/s? Make a list of the number of secondary characters you have in your story. Could one secondary character do the same job as several? Think about the THREADS that run through your story. Have they all had a purpose? Were they all tied up at the end of the book or were some left hanging?
Remember when a secondary character is starting to take over a large chunk of the word-count, it's time to rein them back and open a file where you can add notes with a linked story in mind. Some secondary characters will call out for a story of their own louder than others in the portion of your brain where new stories are born. But no matter how loudly they call, the story they appear in as secondary characters does NOT belong to them. One line may be enough to seed an entirely new story. I know that was the case with Adam in Her Real-Life Hero. He asked the hero if the heroine was the right age. The hero asked what that meant. His reply; “Not so young you could be prosecuted; not so old you'd be embarrassed to take her out in public.” That man had a whoop ass dose of Karma headed his way! The result was the linked book, Her Unexpected Baby. And readers love linked stories. I can't tell you the number of emails I've had asking about secondary characters having their own story at some point. Never say never I say...
- CHECK BACK LATER for more of this 'mini-workshop'. Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)